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February 23, 2010
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York

Dr. Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. He psyched out the architects in the Grassroots plenary, saying, “Something is beginning to stir in the design professions, dramatically changing the role of architects in the world.” He gave as the three most important AIA initiatives: the redirecting of the public identity and image of architects; the use of design to deal with the most pressing issues of the time; and that design should serve all the people. Saying that social responsibility goes “way beyond sustainability,” Farson noted that “architecture, as the leading design profession, is, potentially, the most powerful profession on earth. You can meet society’s most pressing needs.”

Long interested in the field of design, Farson was the founding dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts, and a 30-year member of the Board of Directors of the International Design Conference in Aspen, of which he was president for seven years. In 1999, he was elected as a public director and served on the AIA’s national Board of Directors. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. With these credentials and background, he spoke of having to think beyond the scale of individual buildings: “You have to design a new approach to architecture, not only in the private sector but also in the public sector. To tackle these questions of infrastructure we need to become meta-designers.”

In the course of his remarks, he threw out a few glib one-liners, including, “Anyone working at what they were trained to do, is probably obsolete,” and Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, “If it’s working it’s obsolete.” He noted that architecture is “one of the few professions that is dominated by its clientele, or rather, which has come to be dominated by its clientele. This was not always the case.” He referenced the book Leadership by Design by Ambassador Richard N. Swett, FAIA, “which is about the standing of architects, and how that has changed over time.”

“The public has to learn what designers can do,” he suggested “You’ll need collaboration with social scientists, political leaders, and all sorts of people you don’t deal with now.” And he appended three friendly warnings:

· The higher you go with leadership, the less you deal with problems and the more you deal with predicaments.
· Architects strive for perfection; as we tackle these complex problems, we need to take a lot more risks, and that must allow for failure.
· Meta-design is a higher calling; the money needed for meta-design is an investment — we’ll get it all back as you architects reduce discrimination and divorce, and as you build community and democracy.

Farson concluded with a reference to the movie “Its Complicated,” in which Steve Martin plays an architect. He reminded those present that architects have a secret weapon: mystique. He said, “You have created moments of power and strength and excitement and spirituality and earthiness and beauty.” During the lively question and answer session that followed, he was asked about ways in which the social responsibility of the profession can be enhanced. His answer was telling: “We have to increase our numbers. We have to increase what we are doing. We’re not mobilized as an architectural profession to deal with the great issues of our time. We need to work more effectively with the media. Commoditization is the danger, and the trouble.” Also, answering a direct question, he was able to plug his award-winning documentary film, “Journey into Self,” available online through Psychological Films in Laguna, CA.

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